The word ‘Nayrouz’ is a Persian term meaning,
“The beginning of the year” and it was adopted for the feast of the martyrs.
The Copts used the word Nayrouz to denote the start of the Coptic Year. Historians and Christian writers dating back to the 5th Century AD have documented the great persecutions which Christians faced from the pagans following the Jewish persecutions. From the dawn of Christianity until the 4th Century AD, Christians have faced persecution after persecution until paganism represented in the Roman Empire finally raised the banner of the Cross.
The aim of the long persecutions was to wipe out Christianity and its followers. However what happened had the opposite effect of purifying it and revealing its most magnificent virtues. It was the example set by its heroes that lead to Christianity spreading even more and lead to many pagans entering the Christian faith. Tertullian – a man who witnessed these persecutions first hand and never saw their end wrote, “The blood of the martyrs are the seeds of the church”.
The historians record ten great periods of persecution perpetrated by the pagan emperors of the Roman Empire against the Christians. They were during the periods of Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Maximinus, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and Diocletian.
The tenth and last persecution instigated by Emperor Diocletian was considered the most brutal persecution the Christians ever faced, and in which the most martyrs died. Given this momentous event and so as never to forget the sacrifice of those martyrs, the Coptic Orthodox Church decided to start the Coptic Year from the year Emperor Diocletian came to the throne in 284AD. The calendar became known as the calendar of the martyrs (Abbreviated to AM – meaning ‘according to the martyrs’). So the Feast of the Nayrouz became synonymous with the feast and the commemoration of the martyrs.
The modern historian Mrs Butcher in her book on the ‘History of the Church’ states that if in the world there were six wonders, then the seventh and greatest wonder would be the Coptic Orthodox Church. For despite the many attempts to remove it, and destroy it, and the thousands of martyrs it has presented so that their blood went up to the knees of the horses, yet it has remained steadfast, spread and grown. It is the church which has presented the most martyrs to Christ.
The martyrs have a great presence in the rites of the Church. They are
remembered in the Psalmody book (both the yearly and Kiahk versions). They
are remembered in the Doxologies, and the special Psalis dedicated to them.
They are remembered in the Dethnar (story of the saint of the day).
They are also remembered in the Morning Doxologies, and in the morning and evening vespers, and in the Holy Liturgy and many of the other ritual prayers. The church also presents their stories as an example and a blessing to its congregation after the reading of the Acts of the Apostles in the reading of the Synaxarium.
The Church has faithfully kept the commemoration of the martyrs annually, and protected the relics of those who had been martyred even during the time of persecution. When the persecutions ended the church honoured those relics by placing them in special containers or mausoleums and churches and monasteries were built bearing the names of those martyrs. Today many of the old churches and monasteries – especially those in Egypt – have retained many of the relics of the saints.
We thank God that in St. Mark’s Church in London God has blessed us with the relics of many of His martyrs and saints. By this we may enjoy their prayers which are accepted on our behalf and their blessings. They also give us an example of how we should lead our lives, and they introduce themselves to every generation so that they may come to know and love the greatness of their Church, her martyrs, and her saints.
The church honours the martyrs directly after St. Mary, the Archangels, angels, and the heavenly hosts, St. John the Baptist, the apostles and the disciples.
The church celebrates with a joyous tune from the Feast of the Nayrouz to the Feast of the Cross. This is from 1st – 17th Tute according to the Coptic Calendar, which is from 11th - 27th September.
The Coptic Orthodox Church believes in the intercession of the martyrs and the saints and the prayers they raise on our behalf. Generations have experienced the blessings and the strength of their intercessions and on a few occasions even their miracles. The intercession of the saints is a Biblical dogmatic belief which the Holy Bible has recorded in many places. It is a witness to the greatness of their faith and how highly esteemed they are in the heart of the Lord Our Saviour.
It is sufficient to quote out of all of these
verses what the epistle to the Hebrews says, “Therefore we also, since we
are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every
weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with
endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and
finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the
cross despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne
of God.” Heb 12:1-2.
This can be interpreted as meaning the cloud of martyrs (witnesses) that surrounds us raises its intercessory prayers for the sake of our struggles so that the Lord may assist us as He assisted them and before us we have the author and finisher of our faith Our Lord Jesus Christ who bore the sufferings of the Cross.
The Church prays asking for the intercession (epresvia) of our mother St. Mary, and the angels, and St. John the Baptist, and the prayers (evki) of the martyrs and saints. The church held onto those intercessions and prayers from her beginnings. St. Augustine says, “We do not pray for the martyrs, for they completed their love for the Lord more than any person, we ask them to remember us…”
The Church is the bride of Christ which has the spirit of her Bridegroom. He is not pleased by those who honour Him with their lips when their hearts are far from Him. He asks for the heart and then He will accept every honour, praise, thanksgiving, worship, etc…
The Church in celebrating the Feast of the Nayrouz and the many feasts of its martyrs and saints does not merely honour them superficially by doing feasts, decorating their icons, and lighting candles etc… It invites us to enter into the depth of having their spirit in worshipping and serving God.
Christianity is a religion of love. For her, “God is love” 1Jn4:8, “he who
abides in love abides in God and God in him” 1 Jn 4:16.
In the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, Love strived towards suffering. For His love for us made him run after suffering to the point of death which had overcome us, so that He may overcome it and save us from its eternal punishment. So the cross became the banner of love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Jn 3:16.
Our Saviour sought after death by His own will and with all happiness and joy. It was for this hour that He came and was incarnate, as St. Paul says, “And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven and of those on earth, and of those under the earth.” Phi 2:8-10.
The Lord accepted the judgement of death by the cross in all obedience and joy. Despite having the authority to stop the judgement being issued let alone executed, yet He told His zealous disciple Peter to return his sword to its scabbard saying, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword, or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels”. Mt26:52-53.
The Lord maintained His remarkable silence in the face of the courts set up to falsely accuse Him. Even during the mocking, and the spitting, and the beating, and the scourging… in all this, not one word was uttered by Him to defend Himself, despite His innocence. He did not expose the lies, the false witnesses, and the hatred of those who sought to crucify Him.
Even then there were those who witnessed to His innocence, such as Pontus Pilate and Herod, Lk 23:14-15, and Judas who betrayed Him who said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” Mt27:4. There was the right hand thief who said, “‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom’.” Lk23:40-42. There was also the centurion and those who were with him, who when they saw the earthquake and the things that happened feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God” Mt 27:54.
Thus the prophecies were fulfilled, “He was lead as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” Is 53:7. In the Liturgy according to St. Gregory we pray, “You endured the injustice of the wicked” …“For my sake O My Master, you did not hide Your Face from the shame of spitting”
In turn the martyrs received from the Lord who suffered for them how to present their love in obedience to God. They learnt how to love others even at the expense of their own dignity and rights without defending themselves. For it is Our Lord Jesus Christ who leads the martyrs in His triumphant procession and it was His words which rang in their ears, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” Jn 12:24.
Just as Christ fulfilled this with His death on the cross and brought everyone who believed to Him, so the martyrs who died for Christ caused many to believe and Christianity spread to the world.
Every person who believes in Christ as their Saviour and God comes to
baptism to die with Christ and rises as a new person. They are given a
second birth from the baptismal font, and from that moment they are no
longer a person tied to the desires of the flesh which are part of this
corrupt world. They no longer love themselves or love what is for them or
what is in this world or the glories of this world. For that old nature was
completely buried. What arose with Christ was a living person within the
true meaning of the word. A person whose citizenship is in heaven and their
heart and mind is in heaven, even though for the time being their body
remains on earth.
The Christian faith means that the true Christian applies this spiritual practice to their lives, and they recite the verse, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Gal3:20.
Everyday their wish and eagerness to be with God grows and their thoughts become more preoccupied with God and the Spirit of God works in them to desire what St. Paul desired, namely, “a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.” Phi 1:23
This type of faith also tells its own story by deeds and works and obedience. This is the faith which is living and working in love. For love is measured by labour and patience and carrying the cross and sufferings for the sake of Christ day after day with all joy and happiness. Furthermore this was granted to us by God. “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” Phi 1:29.
In another place St. Paul writes, “always carrying in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in mortal flesh” 2Cor 4:10-11. The martyrs learnt from Christ how to demonstrate love to the point of giving oneself and to the point of blood. “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” 1Jn3:16
The word martyr (“martyros” in Greek) means ‘witness’ and they are the person who witnesses to Christ and witnesses to His commandments by holding onto them no matter what the cost. He witnesses to the Divine truth because Christ says, “I am the way, the truth and the life” Jn14:6.
Those who accept the faith in Christ through baptism, and all the sacraments
necessary for their salvation, and fulfil the commandments through the strength
and grace of God who works in them, despite all the difficulties, the hazards,
the pain and suffering whether from within or from others, live the life of
martyrdom. They accept in themselves the judgement of death, and share with
Christ the steps of His suffering so that He may give them to share in His
resurrection and His glory. The person whose belief is a working living faith,
in denying themselves, being humble, and sacrificing oneself in joy for the sake
of others lives the lift of martyrdom.
They progressively train themselves up in faith and patience, and love grows in
them more and more. The more that love burns in them the purer in heart they
become, and every love which is a hindrance to their progress they cast away
even if it is to the closest people around them.
The Lord becomes more transfigured in His love and glory within them and they can then say with St. Paul, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’ Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life; nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created things, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Rom 8:35-39.
The inner life with Christ happens when the person no longer: - knows laziness, or becomes lukewarm, or spiritually cold, or lacks commitment, or their conscience becomes anaesthetised, or they walk in this world, or they seek the glories of this world. Christianity and living with Christ means walking the path which Christ walked and on this path you will find the footprints of the martyrs and saints who preceded us. These saints and martyrs who say with St. Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.” 2 Tim:7-8.
Those who accept in themselves the judgement of death and die everyday from
themselves, their greed, lusts and what ties them to this earth (in a way
that hinders them), and bear all the burdens of obedience for the sake of
their love to their King the Christ, leaving everything for His sake, is a
martyr. They are a martyr because they witnessed to the Lord with their
lives and actions. They are the ones ready to face death whether it be in
the arena of the martyrs or on their beds. This is how to be faithful until
death, for it is written “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the
crown of life.” Rev2:10.
Therefore martyrdom is not confined to a certain period of time in history, but martyrdom is a way of life. It is a way of life to be lived everyday with the Lord in whom we believe. We meet a daily earthly death for Him, thereby sharing with the glory of the martyrs and the saints.
* Repentance with all its requirements and a complete and frank confession
of ones sins.
* Fasting and prayer regularly and with discipline and attaining a degree of asceticism from the materialistic world. By this we mean things such as worldly desires and lusts, laziness, seeking glory from people, etc…
* Holding onto the commandments of God and practising them in a daily discipleship.
* Bearing illness and sickness with thanksgiving.
* Bearing those who are evil to you (even to the extent of presenting them with love) and praying for them, asking God for their forgiveness, and making excuses for them.
* In the life of matrimony loving your partner and denying oneself for them. Accept the other person’s weakness until God, at the appropriate time, through your prayers and patience, and the intercession of the church, the martyrs and saints gives them strength in the face of that weakness and they change.
* Bearing in the bringing up of the future generations, with great patience and understanding. Giving them love and kindness, but also discipline and guidance. Handing down to them the church and the altar, and the priesthood.
* Bearing the cost of friendship in faithfulness and purity in a world which no longer recognises these qualities.
* Serving God and His church, His children, and those in need with all your strength, patience, long suffering, tears and prayers.
By this you share in the sufferings which are after the Cross. For before salvation suffering and death was tied to sin. However after the salvation the Lord from the heights of the Cross paid of the debt which resulted from our sin. Suffering then became for us a gift granted to us from God. “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” Phi 1:29.
God pours out His comfort and strength to those faithful souls who suffer in
His name in obedience, struggling, and sacrifice. For God does not leave
this soul to its own weak human abilities but through prayer and the tools
of grace He comforts it. These tools include Holy Communion, the sayings of
the fathers and holding onto God’s promises. It is in these times that God
announces Himself, His presence and His glory in the appropriate way needed
to strengthen this soul. In that time He gives it His unlimited power to
overcome. The archdeacon St. Stephen and the first martyr, was comforted by
the Holy Spirit and saw before him the heavens open and the Glory of God,
and the Lord sat at the right hand of God. Acts 7:54-58.
St. Stephen was not the only one. Christ appeared to many of the martyrs whether it be in person, or through sending angels and saints to comfort and strengthen them.
For how can all the miracles which happened when the martyrs were being tortured be explained otherwise? How is it that in certain cases the hungry beasts lost their ferocious nature and refused to touch the martyrs? How is it that the poison that was poured for them did not harm them? Most of all, how did they enter the arena to be martyred with happiness and joyfully praising God as if going to a wedding banquet?
“We feel in complete peace in the time of our sufferings because we suffer
for the sake of Our Good Saviour whom we see opening a heavenly door to
welcome us. He promises us the true rest in the face of serving sin. For we
strive for that rest otherwise we see another door ready to swallow us up,
leading to Hell.
With what do you threaten us? Do you threaten us with cutting our tongues? Cut them out, for we call God with our hearts. Do threaten us with plucking out our eyes? Pluck them, for we see Him by Faith. Do you threaten us with cutting off our ears? Cut them off, for we hear Him by our spirit. Torture our bodies but you will never be able to touch the place in which God has established Himself. It is not possible for you to touch the heart which God has preserved for Himself.
Sharpen your weapons, unsheathe your swords, light your fires. All of these are not strong enough to defeat our faith in our Saviour. For you do not see what we see. You see torture destroying our bodies, but we see Christ smiling at us. You see our bodies scared and we see the spirit of the martyrs who went before us enjoying the eternal life. Do you honestly think that we are concerned about how are bodies are treated, “Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day” 2Cor 4:16. Do you imagine that we care about the destruction of our homes, “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heaven.” 2 Cor 5:1. Be confident that we fear nothing except sin.”
This should lead us to think and contemplate. What characteristics do we have which demonstrate our zeal for our Christianity? What signals do we give off to the world of our faith? Is it that we have engrossed ourselves in this world and the love of it? Is it that we follow after vain glory? Is it demonstrated through our unfortunate words, actions or thoughts? Or is it demonstrated in the same way as the apostle said about the believers of his time, “in every place your faith toward God has gone forth” 1 Thes 1:8.
We are now in a period of persecution which is more severe and stronger than the time of Diocletian, and yet more subtle. Those who stand against us are the lusts of the eyes and the body and vain glory. In their time those who were persecuted use to have periods of rest. In this time the fighting is without rest bite. They were tortured in the body, but now the torture is of the spirit. In that time they strove to end the earthly life of Christians, but in this time they strive to end the heavenly life.
Therefore we must examine ourselves against the Cross of Christ our Saviour and His sufferings for us. We must examine ourselves against those members of the body of Christ who suffered for the Lord from martyrs and saints. If only we would stay the night awake watching for our salvation and our eternal life. If only we prayed always and held onto the spiritual weapons in alertness. If only we united ourselves with the Lord through the tools of grace for the enemies we face now are not seen. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” 1 Eph 6:12.
“But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord
Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the
world” Gal 6:14. “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word
of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their
conduct.” Heb 13:7.
By this alone we can properly celebrate the Feast of the Nayrouz and the Feast of the Cross. It is when we live to the Lord and we complete the days of our sojourning in this place for the Lord that we will have the eternal reward with the Lord.
God is able to let us enjoy the blessings of these holy days through the intercessions of St. Mary, the Mother of Light, who suffered the sword which pierced her heart when she saw her Son and God on the Cross. Through the prayers of the apostles, martyrs and saints who completed the faith and through the prayers of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, may God give him long life. May the Lord lead us in His victory procession. May He lead us from the valley of suffering and death to the world of glory and life with which He will reward each one according to the deeds which they have done.
May God, the Lord of the martyrs and saints be glorified in His church, now and forever. Amen.
Wishing you all many happy returns…
Father Pishoy Bushra
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